German elections deliver mixed messages to Merkel

Posted in Europe | 31-Aug-09 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: New York Times

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) addresses a news conference in Berlin, August 31, 2009.

BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives suffered heavy losses in two state legislative elections in Germany on Sunday, but managed to hold on to power comfortably in a third state, according to preliminary results.

The results, coming only four weeks before a parliamentary election that will determine whether Mrs. Merkel remains as chancellor, could hurt her chances of ending her coalition with the Social Democrats and forming a center-right government then.

Still, Mrs. Merkel's party, the Christian Democrats, continues to hold a large lead in national polls over its main rivals, and most Germans expect her to win a second term handily.

Preliminary results of the voting on Sunday, reported by the public television networks ARD and ZDF, showed that the chancellor's party had lost its absolute majorities in the states of Thuringia and Saarland, and might even lose power in these states to a coalition of leftist parties and the Greens.

The results were more positive for the Christian Democrats in Saxony, where the party was expected to establish a new coalition government with a pro-business party, the preliminary results indicated.

The Christian Democrats had controlled the legislatures in all three states. The results in Saarland and Thuringia, which were expected, showed the growing influence of smaller parties and the populist Left Party at the expense of the big parties.

The two major parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, have dominated German politics since 1945, and until recently they were able to win enough votes to establish governments themselves or to form coalitions with their preferred political partners.

But the state elections cast some doubt on whether the Christian Democrats will be strong enough in the parliamentary voting on Sept. 27 to establish a government with the pro-business Free Democrats, the chancellor's preferred partners - or whether Mrs. Merkel will be forced to share power once again with the Social Democrats, as she has done since 2005.

The Social Democrats, led by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will run against Mrs. Merkel next month for the chancellorship, failed to make the impact they had hoped for, according to the preliminary results.

The big winners in the state elections were the Free Democrats and the Left Party, with the Free Democrats' share of the vote in all three states increasing by an average of 4 percentage points.

The share of the far-right National Democratic Party, which won more than 9 percent of the vote in Saxony in 2004, fell to about 5.5 percent, just enough for it to remain in the state legislature, according to the preliminary results.

The Free Democratic Party is the only party to say what it would do if it became part of the next national government: it has pledged to cut taxes and the bureaucracy.

The Left Party is made up of disgruntled western German trade unionists who broke away from the Social Democrats in 2005 and then merged with former Communists from eastern Germany. The party won 21 percent of the vote in Saarland, compared with 2.3 percent in 2004.

The outcome represented a major victory for Oskar Lafontaine, the Left Party's leader, who will now try to persuade the Social Democrats and the Greens to establish the next government in Saarland. If they do so, it will be the first time that a former Communist party has entered a regional government in western Germany since World War II.